How Do You Know If Your Work is Any Good?
A question from a reader on Facebook:
Outside of selling, how do you know that your work is actually good? You may pitch a book, and it might be good but might not be what an agent likes. So how do you validate that what you are doing is good?
Always a good question! And a tough one. Here are some thoughts:
First, there’s the definition of “good.”
Art and entertainment are subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. While there are certain standards by which many of us agree to judge worthiness, it’s still not even close to being objective. Organizations routinely give awards to books that would bore the heck out of most readers. Meanwhile, other groups give awards to books that the literary types deem “trash.” All kinds of books become bestsellers—from the most intelligent, scholarly masterpieces to more easily accessible stories that attract readers for reasons other than literary excellence.
The question is, what kind of “good” are you shooting for? The “good” that wins literary awards and gets starred reviews in PW? The “good” that attracts readers and leaves them wanting more of your work? Some combination?
Whatever the answer, you’re shooting for a murky target. You won’t find a solid working definition of “good.”
Second, what kind of validation are you looking for?
We’re all looking for validation, but your task is to try and understand what YOU will find validating. A few friends loving your work? An agent taking you on? A major publisher signing you? Or maybe none of those things will happen but you’ll self-publish and readers will write you adoring letters. You might not know until you’re further along this journey and have some experience with different avenues of getting your work out there.
But let’s get back to the crux of the question: How do you know if your work is any good—by anybody’s standards?
You know your work is good in two ways:
1) Your own gut feeling.
You have to train your gut, however, by reading and writing, and reading more, and writing more. Reading books in your genre, reading books on craft, identifying how you can make your writing better. Putting manuscripts away for a few months and coming back to them later to re-evaluate them with a fresh eye. You will never be objective about your own work, but you can train yourself to assess your work more and more accurately.
2) Outside feedback from others.
In the end, there’s no substitute for getting other people’s eyes on your work. This is why critique partners and beta readers are so popular. It’s also why authors hire editors, consultants, book mentors and book doctors. At some point, you might want the input of someone whose “gut” is more seasoned than yours or your critique partners’.
But still…how do you know when your work is ready to send out?
Nobody can answer this definitively. A combination of your gut and some outside feedback is where you start… then it’s trial and error. Sometimes you just have to send it (or press “publish” if you’re self-publishing) and see what happens.
How do YOU know when your work is ready to send? What do you find most challenging about this?
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash
I’ve been working on a book. How do I get it published?
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I’ve just always assumed the “good” question was exactly as Rachelle described. I find the rejection letters take me to the “I can’t write” place. But a little while later, I take another look and give it another shot.
I mentioned, in reply to another post, the subjectivity of the whole thing is what kills me the most. As much as agents say they are looking for something “new and fresh,” it begins to feel like they are looking for the next [name current popular genre]. I’m writing for the middle/YA group — so it feels like the least objective of all.
I’m sure that’s not the way it is, it just feels that way sometimes.
[…] How Do You Know If Your Work is Any Good? It’s one of the oldest questions around, and not unique at all to writing or even the arts. Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) takes a crack at it, starting by asking how each of us define “good” and what kind of validation we’re looking for. Nothing really new or revelatory here, just good solid reminders to help you keep yourself in balance. […]
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The hardest thing for me is that I’ve been working on the same book for more then two years on and off. I started writing it in 8th grade and now in my junior year I’ve seen my writing style change a lot. It means a a lot of revisions to fit my changing writing style, but it also means I get to see my writing improve in a relativity short amount of time.
I’m in the same boat, Mandi. My last WIP was written through all my high school years. In some ways, it’s really encouraging to read through the beginning and the end and realize how much better it is, but also, it does feel like a never ending cycle of edits just to catch up one half of the book to the other half 🙂
…when I’ve done everything I can to prepare, (study my craft & use the knowledge gained from objective critiques) I send it out and like many things in life, trust in the Lord to give me the desire, timing, and opportunity.
I tend to be better than I was yesterday…I think.
It’s always so tricky determining what’s good… at some point though, it doesn’t matter, it’s all about the leap, and I feel this post encourages that.
Thanks for the boost!
Thanks for posting this it was very insightful.
I am in the same sistuation, I have written a book and have had at least thirteen people read my manuscript. they all seem to really enjoy it. But I have ptiched it to over a hundred agents and have gotten no where. It’s very fusterating, becuase I know it’s good and obviously other readers think it’s good, but “it’s not right” for the business.
So I guess I go with my gut and will continue to look for agents. It’ll get out there at some point. Thanks again for the post!! Love this site!!
I never feel my work is ready to send!
Setting it aside for a time and looking at it afresh gives me a better perspective. Also, receiving feedback from a trusted critique partner is invaluable.
Some of my work is professionally edited, so that is an extra level of comfort. My editor will make an occasional suggestion or point out something needing clarification.
The reality is I will always think I can make it better, so when I know I’ve done the best I can in the time available, I say a prayer and click send.
I vote for Good = some combination.
[…] How Do You Know If Your Work is Any Good? […]
I had thought my work was good, revisions were complete on 6 of my 7 books, and I was happy.
Then the program I was using (OpenOffice) ate up my work, leaving me with corrupted files that when opened in another program gave me the first two chapters of book 1 and a few chapters from books 5 and 6.
Now, since I had the original work saved else where with a different program, I am now in the process of revising, again.
But, this time it’s getting better.
It just goes to show, don’t go saying/thinking “My writing is perfect, I don’t need to change anything” or God just might give you a kick in the backside (Or make your writing program eat your revisions) just to show you how much help you need.
BTW, my revisions this time around are way better than the first. I’m not as afraid of cutting things out or changing them.
Sometimes, when God smacks you up the head, He’s doing it because he loves you. (^O^) (And yes, it does still hurt)
I know it’s good because Mom told me so.
My mom likes my book better than she likes your book (which she wouldn’t think of reading).
So true about training your gut. Developing that instinct is all-important.
This is exactly where I am at. I’ve rewritten the MS twice, edited, polished, sent it through critique groups, beta readers, still polishing and wondering, is it ready to send off? I’ve worked on it for years because I’ve made all the newbie mistakes and learned the hard way.
The hardest part is figuring out the next step. Do I set it aside and move on to my next project? But it won’t let me go. Ha! Do I send out queries to agents or hire a freelance editor for a manuscript evaluation? (Not that I have the money for one, but if that’s what I need to do, then I best figure out how to get the money.)
Also, I think fear kind of muddies the thoughts a bit, gets us second guessing, when, really, what’s the worse that could happen? A rejection, right? As long as we’re rejected for the right reasons, meaning we’ve done our homework, but we’re just not quite there yet. We shall see.
What a very interesting post.
The way I know if my book is good or not is; first by my editor, then by my readers. I have many readers who respond back to me and tell me thinks like; “I could not put it down. “I loved it, when’s the next one coming out?” and one of my faves; “Now that I’m finished reading it I miss those people (characters).” The is what I call ‘My Reviews’. I praise The Lord for those reviews. It’s important for me to know what my readers think of my work.
But I must admit, when I have sold a lot of copies, and I have had ‘My Reviews’ and there is one person I know who did not buy the book, (for whatever reason) it makes me second guess myself, It makes me think the book really is not good and I am really not a good writer. I know that is just my self-esteem talking but it talks so loudly. I Would love to make it shut up. :0]
I usually think something I’ve written is good when I question my own authorship of it. I’ll go back and look at it and think “Did I really write this? Why doesn’t the rest of my manuscript read like this?”
Yes, and to make the rest of the manuscript match my best voice? That is the worthy goal.
I only recently finished my first novel. When it was done, it felt amazing. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Then I started on my next piece and my first novel didn’t feel so great anymore.
It wasn’t being engulfed in the new story, but the feeling that I left too much out of the first novel.
My revisions will be my saving grace for my first novel. But I know it is on the right track based of comments from people who have read snippets. I am my own worst critic. I feel confident that once I don’t want immediately click away I will be ready.
Time has always been my best friend when it comes to my writing. I look back at old shorts in awe of what I created. So I take my own personal criticism with a grain of salt.
If we can separate self-worth from the worthiness of our writing, validation would be much more useful.
Exactly. Our self-worth is rooted in Christ as chosen, holy and beloved.
Our work becomes more and more worthy as we develop our craft,writing what burns in our heart, not knowing who it will resonate with.
Our validation as writers comes from finding the tribe our voice was meant to speak to on behalf of a God who loves them too.
I could not have said it better. Thanks Ann.
Thanks for the validation,Diane. LOL
Ha ha ha ha!
Craft, the nuts and bolts of writing, isn’t subjective so failure at that is an obvious sign your story isn’t ready for prime time.
An experienced writer or editor can usually clue you in on that. So can a good writing teacher who can help you improve.
The art of writing is a bit more problematic, but finding readers who are the audience you are aiming for will help there.
Give them a series of questions about different elements of your book so they can give you real and specific feedback. Do a search for “critique questions” or click on my blog and look for the “critiquing” label to find a sample list of questions.
I don’t think anyone can tell you if your book, no matter how competent and “good” it is, will succeed in the market. Even books that have been published by great presses and respected editors have either had almost universal pans or have disappeared without a trace. If they can’t guess at success, no one can.
I’ve been struggling with how much I allow other people’s opinions of my writing to matter when I write. I love my writing. I love the characters and the story I created, the wondrous things that happen there. And I love my blog. But am I writing so that other people will read, or am I writing for myself? And if I have few readers, does it mean that my writing is not good?
I don’t know if it’s ok to link to my blog here, but this morning I posted about these questions there. Would my writing make a sound if it falls in the forest and there is no one around?
I recently published a book on Amazon Kindle to get feedback and it has been super helpful. I can make changes and re-upload the book at any time. I think it’s a fantastic way to test the market, so to speak.
Any negative comments are getting easier to take as I realize I can’t please everyone, but I have at least made the majority of my readers happy. 🙂
You’ve tackled a tough question, Rachelle!
…and done a good job of answering it.
It really does come down to expectations.
For me, the two critical questions are:
Have I effectively communicated what I intended?
Has it helped someone gain a healthier perspective?
If I can achieve those two things, it’s good.
Of course…in both cases, there is always room for improvement…and no book will resonate with every reader…
Like many posters, I am often my own worst critic. Unpublished writers think some version of, “If I get that first sale, I’ll have it made,” which is completely untrue. Authors struggle with all the same feelings and worry about reviews, being able to make the next sale, etc. But what’s different is published writers have hard deadlines. They write the best book they possibly can within a time frame, then send the book out, often wishing they had more time on the book.
I’ve had a very hard personal journey (being widowed and raising my youngest child with special needs). Without hard deadlines, I keep saying my work isn’t ready. But I’ve tweaked it to death. Mostly, I wasn’t ready to transition from a hobby writer to a career author because of my child. But he’s now doing well. (Yay!) Critique partners say I’m a good writer. Beta readers like my work. Soon, I’m going to have to take the plunge send it out.
Yes, Rachelle, I find this very challenging.
There’s the gut feeling of satisfaction, as you mentioned, there’s the constant work of improving my writing and editing, and there’s the beta test group. Those combined give me the confidence to send out my queries and proposals and manuscript (if asked), but then when these are rejected I am assaulted by all kinds of doubts about my abilities. I question. I get more betas. I walk away from the manuscript or query or proposal. Much later I come back to revise. I repeat the process. Since I haven’t obtained representation for my fiction yet, I always feel a gnawing sense of frustration. I’ve written good stories that make people cry and impact their hearts and lives, but my audience is small, because I’m not in the door yet. These are the greatest challenges for me.
Subjectivity is a writer’s hangnail, and those varying opinions hurt! I’m fortunate to have a great critique group, and place strong faith in their feedback.
The corollary question to “Is this any good?” for me is, “Am I wasting all this time when I could be____________ (fill in the blank with whatever you aren’t doing) instead?”
The first question gets at the artistic realm, but the second question is intensely practical. When I write for hours and hours, I’m asking the people who are impacted by my activity to believe that it will one day be rewarded in some way. When I worry about whether my writing is good, I’m also worrying that I won’t justify their confidence in me–and that I’m wasting my time.
Yet I keep showing up at my computer, and most days, quite hopefully. Is what I write ‘good?’ Yes. But is it good enough to be marketable? Um-m-m…
I agree with the other posters in that I usually veer between being uber confident and cowering in a dark corner thinking it all sucks. Walking away from a story and coming back does help point out weak spots or things that should be cut altogether, and outside critique is very valuable.
I tend to overanalyze so I try to give myself a set number of times to make major changes/edits to a story. I think I know a story is good enough when I’m reading it back and simply enjoying it and not editing in my head the entire time, something that is VERY hard to do.
I do a lot of rewriting, so when I get to the point that I’m undoing previous changes I know that I need to either send my manuscript off or let it sit awhile.
Once I do send off a ms, I’m filled with self-doubt and am generally miserable and grumpy until I embark on a new novel. Then, I’m “in love” with a whole new work and don’t fret quite so much. My husband is a great support for me during those self-doubting, grumpy times. When I wax whiny, he gives me a smile and says, “Sue, go write.” He’s so smart!
The main component of good writing may just be appealing to your audience, whether they be literary professor-types, or middle grade action readers. Distinguishing one’s audience may be the first step. Figure out who you’re writing for, and then appeal to them. If your audience likes your work, then you’re good.
I can honestly tweak a story to death. I limit myself (now) to six passes. I’ll put it away and then review with a red pen again.
I’ll use my grammar Nazis (my critique groups), and then send it out to Beta readers before I publish.
“Miss [Jane] Austen’s novels . . . seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer . . . is marriageableness.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Writing is, as you say, an art form. Like any other art form, its beauty rests very much in the eyes of beholders, which is pretty scary since I had to fight a few of those back when I played D&D, and they’re just plain mean.
That said, it’s hard not to take observations to heart. My first one-star crushed me, despite the fact that it was explicitly related to the reviewer’s dismay over how the book had treated his religion rather than the quality of the work. I even felt bad after a couple of three stars, both of which said something like “it’s a good book, but he’s not the real Stephen King.” And just last night I was doing the party-chair dance when I discovered a new five-star.
So all that being said, how do I know when the work is ready? Well, I know. I just do. I’ll be revising it, on like the fifth or thirteenth pass through the manuscript, and the prose will sing to me. Might not sing to everybody else; I still have people who say I pushed my first book out before it was ready. But such is life in the fast lane, no?
I obviously have no clue when it’s ready to send, because the first time I sent it out I was sure it was ready. . . but my mother ways dying at the time and my vision must have been clouded because when I reread it months later I realized that it had not been worth sending. (Although I had no other option because the publisher asked for it.) After your rejection, I decided to lose the prologue before I send it out to my next agent. I’m hoping at some point (after x rejections) to have a finely honed novel ready for the publisher. The challenging part is sending it over and over when I know that the market for historical fiction is small. The other challenge is that every time I make changes I introduce more errors and at some point I need to stop changing and move on.
I’ve seen some people say, “When you spend all morning taking commas out, then spend the afternoon putting them back in, it’s time to send it off.”
Of course, that can be plain old indecision, too. As for me, I just sort of feel like ‘it’s time.’ I’m not necessarily sick of my work, but when I feel like I’ve taken it as far as I can, it’s time to let someone else look it over.
I like to read writers I consider much better than myself. It gives me something to aspire to, something to gauge my work against.
Feedback from editors and agents is also a great guide. I’ve had many rejections, but as I work harder and write more, they often come with a comment or two encouraging me to continue.
I’d rather be published, but the positive feedback helps make the rejections a little bit easier to swallow. A very little bit;)
For years I saved my papers from college classes and (hate to admit this) even high school writing classes. The positive comments from teachers really bolstered my self-esteem. I owe so much to my high school teachers and college professors!
To 1) I can just say there’s not a simple answer. My gut might say I’m pretty good in comparison to some writing out there, but my heart says I suck and my brain says that my gut is an idiot because all evidence speaks against it.
And 2) people lie. My friends know exactly how hard I struggle to write, so how could they cope with revealing to me that I’m talentless? People are mostly nice, or cover their asses, and they say you’re good even if they don’t think it’s Good-good. I do, on occasion. Their actions are clear however, and they certainly do not want to read my stuff and come up with every possible excuse to avoid reading. The silence from the industry says my writing is as bad as the horrid examples they reveal on their blogs and in tweets. Crit groups have given me nothing tangible. Mostly that I do – indeed – suck.
So, in this light, I should probably pack up my writing equipment and hide in some sort of archive somewhere and live my life in bitter longing.
“I should probably pack up my writing equipment and hide in some sort of archive somewhere”
Oh, poppydash. I think it was David Eddings who said that everybody’s first half-million words sucked. Mark Twain spoke derisively about his first novel. You’re absolutely right that a lot of our friends lie, but I’ve had some success approaching people with a “I know it needs to get better; can you help me figure out how?” request. But don’t quit. Writers write. Authors write and then dissect their work to learn how to get better.
Keep writing, Malin. That’s the best way to improve. Also, read the best, and to shore up your self esteem, read something you wrote a couple years ago. You’ll either be surprised at how good it is, or you’ll realize that you’ve improved a lot. Either way, you’ll feel better about your craft! Good luck!
What an excellent comment, – you’ll either know how good it is or how much improvement you have made.
It’s definitely a combo of those two, and yet I can’t help but feel it’s good once the feedback is in. Feedback from an outside source is SO vital, and you have to be prepared for them to be blunt and not love what they say every time (it takes all kinds).
Being ready to pitch is another indication, though I’ve had offerings I thought were pitch-worthy, and a year later saw some errors that made me glad I waited. It’s part of the growth.
How do you know if it’s good? I figure if you enjoyed writing it and more than five people enjoyed reading it and gave decent objective feedback, it’s a fair sign.
Also ask if it wil EVER be good enough. Creatives are generally their own worst critics 😉
How do I KNOW when it’s ready? That’s a tough one. However, I can tell you this. I know when it ISN’T ready. That was a lesson learned the hard way. I queried too early. Though I only contacted a handful of agents, it would be wonderful to rewind time and un-burn those bridges. Where’s the universal remote control when you need it?
Fortunately, after finding Blogs like this one and Janet Reid’s Query Shark, I realized what I was doing. I stopped sending queries unless specifically requested by an agent and started building a solid platform. The manuscript has now gone through five solid critique partner edits and I have hired Stephen Parolini as a pro editor. (Thank you for listing him, Rachelle). It goes to him this month. After I refine things based on his suggestions, I’ll start looking for an agent again.
While my novel’s desirability to the publishing world remains to be seen, my goal is to get it as print ready as possible before putting it in front of another agent.
Rachelle – This is such a good question. In addition to being an easily discouraged soul, I’m also prone to much second-guessing and choosing nose-bleed standards for myself.
But now, after several years at this fiction gig, I am finally, finally hitting that writer groove I’d only heard of, the place of *knowing* yourself, your voice, your “story”, your gift, your passion. I now believe that when *I* like what I’m writing (gasp!) enough say, “If no one ever publishes this, I will still be thrilled that I wrote it!”—THAT is when I know it’s good. Or, more accurately, that it is good and right for me.
Oh. I probably should add that I have a traditionally published novella that received nothing but lovely, glowing 5 star reviews, (I am not related to or have paid a single one of the reviewers) and I am represented by an incredible agent, and a number of big house editors have liked my novels enough to take them to pub board.
And yet… in spite of all this great, positive, “yes, you’re good!” affirmation, I had always been my own hardest to please critic. But, after years of studying, struggling, & searching my gut for a reason to press on, I am finally finding out how and what I want to write that pleases me. And giving myself permission to write it. This makes an incredible difference in the way I view the feedback I receive. If I don’t think it’s good, (which is most of the time) no amount of positive feedback will anchor me. But I believe this to be a good thing, actually. If gushing editors don’t anchor me, don’t seal the deal in my heart, that means my work is not there yet—for ME.
But now . . . I am finally anchored. No more being tossed by every wind and wave of contradictory feedback.
This is probably not everyone’s litmus test, I know. Some writers have no trouble standing their ground that their work is staggering genius no matter what anyone says, God bless ’em. But for someone like me who has constantly struggled to find my voice and my inner gut confidence, this inner “anchoring” has been a huge turning point.
One point Rachelle made is essential to being “good” in your own eyes or anyone else’s: You have to know the general basics before you can know and trust your specialty. It takes loads of hard work and training to clear every hurdle of craft and market savvy and writing rules, but if you keep at it, you will find your stride, your personal best, and hopefully, hit that sweet spot when you *know* you can start making a few of your own rules as you aim for those final hurdles. Maybe not outrageous rules, but a solid, undeniable style all your own.
Sorry, I guess I wrote a blog post. You asked!
Great reply, Camille! Thanks for sharing.
I’ve always told myself that being published or not isn’t really “the Thing” that makes the jitters go away, and now you’ve proven that true!
I’m very glad to hear it from a writer who has already passed the publishing hurdles and is only now getting that “anchor” from within.
So, again; thanks for sharing! I lover your long reply. 😉
The gut feeling is the best, and I agree that I know when it’s not ready. When it’s ready, I know that even if it’s rejected, it was good; can maybe be even better, but good.
At last month’s meeting of my writing group we were discussing this very subject. At least I was; in terms of my gratitude towards all of them.
It’s a wonderful feeling to experience; others wanting success for you, seemingly as much as you do for yourself.
There things which authors must learn to separate are “good” and “marketable.”
A book can be good or even great, but if there isn’t a market for it, then it won’t go anywhere.
Some books are garbage. I won’t mention names (Snooki, Pamela Anderson, John Travolta, Ethan Hawk, etc.), but star power means you can doodle on a page and it’s marketable. If nothing else, their success should help us see that “good” and “marketable” are different.
I judge something I write to be good based on my reactions from beta readers whose opinions I respect. If it’s good, then I hope it’s also marketable. But I won’t call something “bad” because it’s not marketable nor call something “good” because it is.
Finding the balance between good and marketable is what creates a professional author IMHO.
Egads, I typoed right at the start. It should say “Two things” not “There things.” That wasn’t “good.” 😛
I’m not sure how you know when your work is ready to send. At some point I know I have to stop overanalyzing it and just let it go.
My most recent challenge was not knowing what to do with the very contradictory feedback I got on my first few chapters. The critiques came from people who are well-respected in the industry. But there were raves from some, suggested changes from others. That was both confusing and frustrating. After going through what seemed like a well-deserved mope, I finally reminded myself that first and foremost I am writing for God. What happens with the finished product is up to Him. My job is to continue to learn my craft, put words on paper, be open to ideas from others, but ultimately to make it my own work.
I think because “good” is so subjective, it’s more important to find that group that will rave, even if another group pans your work. I’ve entered a few contests. One work received lots of high-mediocre scores. The other received big highs and big lows. Confusing? Yes. But it also tells me there is a “tribe” out there willing to rave. Our work will never please everyone. But we do need an audience who is willing to push it forward. I think if you find a group of people who thinks it’s wonderful, it doesn’t matter if the other group doesn’t. You have a readership! Target them. If your work is not touching anyone, you still have work to do.
Thanks for your thoughtful remarks!
Yes, I’ve also received varied results from writing contests. For one contest, I received two VERY high scores and one right at average. The two high ones were brimming with accolades and the low one with markdown remarks.
I like your advice–the challenge is to find and connect with my tribe!
I’m not sure how I’ll know when my work is ready to send out. I DO know it’s not ready yet. One day… but not today.
And when I send it out, I’ll be busy working on the next novel. Because writing is a journey, and each book is but a step along the path.
I find I feel quite confident in my work, so I send it out, then a few weeks later I think of something and become a nail-biting wreck over it. I swing from supremely confident to hiding-in-the-corner-in-the-dark muttering ‘I’m not good enough’. I expect I’ll be a little more balanced once I’m published and have been validated. It’s that external validation which creates a lot of the internal validation.
Kirstie, I can relate to the swings between being confident one moment and a basket case the next! I don’t anticipate that going away, but am hopeful the swings at both ends of the pendulum will eventually have less altitude!
I’ve had a couple of short stories published and I still get the “I’m not good enough” feeling sometimes 🙂
Having had five books (traditionally) published, I can say without hesitation that it doesn’t get any easier. If anything, the stakes get higher. More comparison, more risk, more to lose (and more to gain), and reviewers that have no problem telling you exactly what you did wrong. At length. With sometimes seemingly little realization that you’re a human being, too.
But at the same time, it IS nice knowing at least one editor was willing to take a chance on your work, so that’s something. I’m much more neurotic about “Is this good? Is it worthwhile? Would anyone ever read it?” now than I was before I was published though.
Either way, good luck!!